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Gray’s Reef Natl. Marine Sanctuary

Case Authors

Amy Samples, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


Gray's Reef was designated as a National Marine Sanctuary in the final days of President Jimmy Carter's administration (January 1981) and is authorized through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is one of 14 marine protected areas managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of the National Marine Sanctuary System. Gray’s Reef NMS is the only protected natural reef area off of Georgia’s coast and encompasses 22 square miles which provide a near-shore, live bottom reef habitat for myriad marine species.

The rocky reef sprawls across the ocean floor under 60 to 70 feet of water, providing substrate to a variety of invertebrates that have colonized to form a dense, living carpet.

With this literal foundation for life, a variety of other marine species frequent the reef including a variety of reef fish, threatened loggerhead sea turtles, and endangered northern right whales.


MEBM Attributes

  • Balance/Integration: Public participation through events (reef clean-ups, fish counts, art contests, festivals) and open Sanctuary Advisory Council meetings.
  • Scale: Protection of reef ecosystem (in context of greater Atlantic seaboard).

Mission and Primary Objectives


Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary was designated as the nation’s fourth marine sanctuary in 1981 for the purposes of:

  • Protecting the quality of this unique and fragile ecological community.
  • Promoting scientific understanding of this live bottom ecosystem.
  • Enhancing public awareness and wise use of this significant regional resource.

Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Key Parties


  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • National Marine Fisheries Service
  • Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement


  • South Atlantic Fishery Management Council


  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources


Program Structure


The sanctuary operates with a full-time staff of nine employees. Staff positions include the sanctuary manager, research coordinator, education coordinator, outreach and communications coordinator, planning and evaluation coordinator, executive officer, operations officer, regional programs coordinator, and administrative coordinator. Sanctuary staff report to and are supported by the National Marine Sanctuaries Program office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Advisory Council

The Gray's Reef Sanctuary Advisory Council serves as a liaison to the community regarding sanctuary issues and represents community interests, concerns, and management needs. The council was established in August 1999 to ensure public participation and to provide advice to the sanctuary superintendent.

Vacant seats are filled through an application and review process. Applicant selection is based on expertise, experience, community and professional affiliations, and familiarity with the protection and management of marine resources. Councilors serve three-year terms, participating in three annual meetings that are open to the public.


Team Ocean is a group of volunteer divers, who participate in several exciting activities at the sanctuary, including marine debris monitoring and removal, reef fish monitoring, and habitat assessments.


Sanctuary regulations prohibit alteration of the seabed; use of wire fish traps, bottom trawls, and explosives; damage to or removal of bottom formations and other natural or cultural resources; and discharge of substances or materials. Regulations also prohibit the taking of any invertebrates including lobsters, forbid anchoring in the sanctuary and control the types of fishing gear that may be used in the sanctuary.

Management Plans

Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, NOAA requires a review of all sanctuary management plans and regulations every five years. As part of the review, revisions should be made to fulfill the purposes and policies of the act. Additionally, the National Environmental Protection Act requires the preparation of an environmental impact statement to evaluate proposed regulations. The sanctuary produced a joint Final Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement in 2006 that included a range of alternatives and description of the regulations required to implement the preferred alternative. The review process included a series of public meetings, program-specific workshops, and guidance from the Advisory Council. Stakeholders on a local and national level also were involved.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Legislation authorizing the designation of marine protected areas was passed in 1972 as the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act. Title III of the act outlined a sanctuary program framework which was overhauled and re-titled in 1992 as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. This act authorizes the secretary of commerce to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreation, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational, or aesthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries.

In June 1978, the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources nominated Gray’s Reef for consideration as a National Marine Sanctuary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined, based on its distinctive marine resources and potential sensitivity to environmental perturbation, that Gray’s Reef met the criteria for a recommended area. NOAA and the public reviewed and commented on the nomination extensively during the next two years. Several issues of concern were addressed in the environmental impact statement, including:

  • Conservation of live bottom resources and fishery habitats.
  • The need for research to gain a better understanding of live bottoms and their role as an ecosystem.
  • Prediction of natural or human-induced consequences.
  • The value of Gray’s Reef as a living educational laboratory, a vehicle to promote academic and public awareness.
  • Increased use and overfishing.
  • Spearfishing.
  • Damage to habitat from anchoring, research, and fishing methods.
  • Pollution.
  • Offshore energy and mining development.
  • Oil spills.

Designation as a National Marine Sanctuary was approved and signed by President Jimmy Carter on January 16, 1981. The issues listed above were the focus of the management plan, which was published in 1983.

The sanctuary was named in recognition of biologist Milton B. "Sam" Gray, a renowned expert on marine invertebrates who studied the area in the 1960s as a biological collector and curator at the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is currently the only protected reef off the Georgia coast and one of a handful of marine protected areas between Cape Hatteras, N.C. and Cape Canaveral, Fla. Though encompassing only a portion of the U.S. territorial sea, the 22-square mile (57-square kilometer) sanctuary provides marine habitat that is recognized nationally and internationally.

The reef is characterized as a “live bottom,” which refers to a hard rocky seafloor that typically supports high numbers of large invertebrates such as sponges, corals, and sea squirts. These species thrive in rocky areas, due to their ability to attach firmly to a hard substrate versus the shifting surface of sand or mud sea floors. The reef was formed not by coral, but by the cementing and consolidation of marine and terrestrial sediments that were deposited two to six million years ago. Briny calcium-carbonate seawater served as cement for the sediment, developing calcareous sandstone that now provides the foundation of Gray’s Reef. The reef’s rocky ledges are as tall as six feet but lie below 60 to 70 feet of ocean water. In addition to the live bottom habitat, the sanctuary also includes sandy bottom areas more typical of the seafloor off the southeastern U.S. coast.

The sanctuary includes a complex habitat of caves, troughs, burrows, and overhangs that attract more than 180 species of fish and other important marine organisms. Loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species, use Gray's Reef year-round for foraging and resting, and highly endangered northern right whales are occasionally seen in the sanctuary.


  • Coastal development and population pressures.
  • Boat traffic and anchoring (which damages the sea floor).
  • Increase in recreational fishing, combined with declines in fish populations. (Commercial fishing activity is minimal since bottom trawls & fish traps are prohibited).


Major Strategies

In July 2006 a combined Final Management Plan (FMP) and a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was published. The plan is a site-specific planning and management document that describes the objectives, policies, and activities of a sanctuary over the next five-year period, and beyond (along with staffing and budget needs, and performance measures).

Strategies within the FMP address impacts from human activities, such as anchoring, diving, marine debris, and fishing, as well as administration, research, exploration, evaluation, and education needs. The FMP describes these strategies in six action plans, which define the programs the sanctuary will continue, develop, and/or implement during the next five years.

Action Plans:

Marine Resource Protection Action Plan is a summary of the strategies and activities that pertain to resource protection issues and regulations.

  • Prevent damage to benthic habitats from anchoring.
  • Prevent diver impacts on benthic habitat.
  • Remove marine debris and prevent new debris from accumulating.
  • Increase protection for fish and invertebrate species.
  • Enhance enforcement efforts.
  • Enhance coordination and cooperation with South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries Service, and Georgia Department of Natural Resources on marine reserves and other regional programs.

Research and Monitoring Action Plan is a summary of ongoing and new scientific projects.

  • Investigate ecosystem processes.
  • Investigate designation of a marine research area.
  • Assess and characterize sanctuary resources.
  • Maintain and enhance monitoring programs.

Education and Outreach Action Plan is a summary of the ongoing and new communications and traditional education projects.

  • Conduct public awareness programs.
  • Create and provide scholastic programs in ocean science education.
  • Maintain existing and develop new sanctuary exhibits.
  • Increase outreach to minority communities.
  • Develop volunteer programs to support GRNMS.

Exploration Action Plan is a summary of activities designed to investigate and monitor a broad range of regional physical and biological factors that may affect resources at the sanctuary.

  • Develop and implement the Latitude 31 Program, which addresses the need for increased levels of cooperation with other management and research agencies in the region in consideration of the entire interrelated coastal ocean system from watershed to oceanic influences.

Administration Action Plan is a summary of the organizational systems that allow the sanctuary to implement the other action plans.

  • Improve overall site staffing and support capabilities.
  • Maintain and enhance the infrastructure of the site.

Performance Evaluation Action Plan is a summary of the activities designed to evaluate the sanctuary’s management effectiveness.

  • Develop and implement a performance evaluation program for the sanctuary.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The 2006 Management Plan states:

  • “Information on the status and natural variability of resource components, species, and systems is essential for the informed management of an area as extensive as (the sanctuary). In order to adequately assess the naturally occurring changes in an ecosystem and further determine how those changes will affect other components of the resources, a baseline set of criteria must be determined and followed over time.”

In this vein, the following sanctuary activities were designed to maintain and enhance monitoring programs:

  • Monitor the status and health of fish.
  • Design and implement an invertebrate monitoring program.
  • Develop a comprehensive water quality monitoring program.
  • Develop and implement a sediment analysis and monitoring program.
  • Support and enhance regional ocean observation systems.
  • Expand and update socioeconomic assessment.
  • Synthesize and characterize paleo-environmental information.


Legal Protections

The regulations of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary established stronger legal protections for the ecosystem than had been provided through other mechanisms.


Released in 2006, the revised management plan for the sanctuary identified emerging threats and recommended new resource protection strategies. Those strategies could include additional restrictions on fishing.

Information Gathering

The sanctuary has collected data key data on use of the resource by recreational fishermen and boaters that will influence management strategies. Scientists conducting research for the sanctuary have developed data that increases understanding of the area’s aquatic life, habitat, and geology, as well as the impact on the ecosystem from severe storms and hurricanes. To support research activities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing the designation of an eight-square mile research area that would prohibit fishing and diving activities. The recommendation is pending.


Website Links

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. About the Sanctuary:


National Marine Sanctuaries.  Legislation: